Monday, March 26, 2007

Video Game Canon and MIT

Two landmark video games that were developed by students at MIT – “Spacewar!” (1962) and “Zork” (1980) – have been recommended for a founding list of 10 games deserving preservation as part of a proposed national digital game registry.

What is particularly interesting to me about this proposed archive of a digital game canon is how it marks a shift in our view of digital games – a shift from seeing them as raw entertainment to seeing them as innovative art.

The list, proposed by Stanford University professor and curator Henry Lowood and associates, and announced during their panel discussion at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on March 8, also includes “Star Raiders” (1979), “Tetris” (1985), “SimCity” (1989), “Super Mario Bros. 3” (1990), “Civilization I/II” (1991), “Doom” (1993), the “Warcraft” series (beginning 1994) and “Sensible World of Soccer” (1994). The proposal – modeled on the National Film Preservation Board’s annual selection of films to be added to the National Film Registry – was submitted to the Library of Congress last fall as part of the Library’s Digital Preservation project. A response is expected soon.

“Spacewar,” an early example of a competitive multi-player game, and “Zork,” an early text adventure game, or interactive fiction, evidence the importance of university research in the early development of digital games, as well as how games have pushed the capabilities of digital technology.

Lowood, the curator of history of science and technology collections at Stanford, tells me, “’Spacewar!’ was the first moment when people really said this game really shows what computers can do and how we can interact with them,” beyond just crunching numbers.

There’s a growing body of fine art that borrows from or mimics the look of video games (think Cory Arcangel’s rejiggered “Super Mario Bros.” games), but the video game canon proposal suggests seeing the games themselves as art, much the way major film, television and comic books have come to be seen as art. The distinction is somewhat like the difference between 1960s pop artists swiping comics imagery for their work versus the acknowledgement of comics as art in their own right in the past few decades. The canon proposal points to the artistry and maturity of the medium, as well as our growing awareness of its influence throughout our culture.

By the by: Stanford has an archive of more than 22,000 games, a significant percentage of all the games produced from the early 1970s to 1993, that it acquired in the late 1990s. The collection was donated by the family of Stephen Cabrinety, a Fitchburg guy who began hoarding video games when he was just a wee lad, later attended Stanford, and died at age 29 in 1995. His father worked at Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard, Massachusetts, which gave him opportunities to buy games when they first appeared at tech industry trade shows. Lowood says that while Cabrinety was still in college he formulated an idea for a museum telling the history of digital game culture.


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